Crisp air, panoramic views, brilliantly colored ash and poplar trees: the exhilarating route to North Carolina's Mount Mitchell State Park-the highest peak in the Eastern United States-is a destination in itself. The scenic 78-year-old Blue Ridge Parkway is just one of the country's great autumn drives.
The fall foliage season, when the changing palette of deciduous trees is in blazing bloom, is now starting. And the way to maximize your intake of color is to map out a driving route. In September, October, and-in some spots-even November, color seekers can visit 31 states and drive more than 3,000 miles of national scenic byways, plus thousands of other scenic roads.
Some nature lovers, like former Shenandoah National Park guide Hazel Mills, can't wait to buckle up and get up close and personal with the purple dogwoods and deep burgundy leaves of the Virginia creepers. "It's like a basketful of fall chrysanthemums in every color," she says. "Red and yellow, purple, and deep burgundy. When the afternoon sun hits the hickory, it looks exactly like gold, absolutely breathtaking."
Others, like Mike Boutin, owner of Maine-based Northwoods Outfitters, like to take country drives surrounded by mountains bursting with yellow beeches, scarlet maples, and purple witch hazel around Moosehead Lake. He also loves one of the season's biggest local adventures-back-road moose safaris. "It doesn't get better than pulling over to see a huge brown male moose crash through a riot of bright red and yellow leaves," says Boutin.
Certain areas of the country-the Northeast corridor, the Southeast, along the Appalachian Mountains, and much of the Midwest-produce the most striking and vibrant colors because of mild autumn days and cool (but not freezing) evenings. If daytime temperatures are too warm for an extended period of time, colors are less intense.
If you're planning a fall foliage trip, choose your route based not only on the timing of nature's fiery color display, but also around available activities. Horseback ride through the orange hickory trees in Shenandoah National Park. Or stand beneath a quivering golden aspen at Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra while peering through a dusty window in Bodie, the best-preserved ghost town in California.
But no matter where you are, the way to cover the most ground-and take in the biggest eyeful of color-is behind the wheel. Here are some of our favorite fall color drives.
Courtesy of Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau
Michigan's Gold Coast
Starting Point: Traverse City
The Route: 100 miles.
What to Expect: Lake Michigan's northeastern shores have charming coves, towering sand dunes, and tiny fishing towns. Drive along Grand Traverse Bay, where, in the fall, fiery-hued maple and oak leaves stand out against green pine, fir, and spruce trees.
Where to Stop: The lakeside villages of Peshawbestown, Omena, and Northport; Inspiration Point, for views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands; the 19th-century Grand Traverse Lighthouse; Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Don't Miss: Visit Kilcherman's Christmas Cove Farm, in Northport, to pick apples from among 200 heirloom varieties.
Starting Point: Roanoke, Virginia
The Route: 500 miles.
What to Expect: This slice of the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway combines Virginia's laid-back farmsteads with North Carolina's Appalachian hardwood forests.
Where to Stop: North Carolina's artsy city of Asheville; scenic Price Lake; mountain towns such as Blowing Rock, Floyd, and Galax, home to the Blue Ridge Music Center, which showcases the area's bluegrass tradition.
Stay: The eight-room Black Walnut Bed & Breakfast Inn (Asheville; $$) was created by the architect behind the Vanderbilts' Biltmore Estate.
Starting Point: Portland
The Route: 450 miles.
What to Expect: The upper reaches of U.S. Route 1 are filled with seaside mansions, striking foliage, and lighthouses set on craggy peninsulas.
Where to Stop: Cape Elizabeth, for lobster rolls at the Lobster Shack at Two Lights; Acadia National Park's 5 1/2-mile Sargent Mountain Loop hiking trail; off-the-beaten-path coastal towns such as Stonington and Bath; Kennebunkport, for its historic feel and low-key clam shacks.
Stay: The light-filled Inn at English Meadows ($$), in Kennebunk, is an ideal base.